When Allen Fisher wrote a review of the Crozier/Longville anthology A Various Art (Carcanet 1987) he opened it with a serious reference to narrative and history:
Where a history accounts for a group of people’s activities as depending more on culture than on force as a means of social control, it can be said that their appearances are a matter of inescapable political significance.
With the publication of these two chapbooks from Peter Riley and John Seed, both contributors to that seminal anthology of poets defying the mainstream ownership of poetry-reading, I am reminded of that political significance.
Although Clio as the Muse of History, the derivation of whose name suggests recounting or making famous, dominates the second half of John Seed’s selection of poems the opening echo is of the American Gary Snyder. Not only is there the placing of words within a very particular context but also that focus of Snyder’s which merges the here-and-now and the historical and geographical ‘there’ of the East. The opening poem is titled ‘From Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown 1895-1906’ and the lines giving us a picture of ‘near-to-far’ would be at home on Sourdough:
Drift of dead leaves
piled against a closed gate
no footprints in grass grown wild
suddenly an old man…
is this hard wind blowing all the way to T’ai-shan
white clouds drift there without end
The other voice to be heard here is, of course, more distinctly English and that sudden appearance of an old man calls to mind a leech-gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. This awareness of social outcasts takes these poems forward to the ‘trampers’ who ‘arrive in twilight…’selling brooms lines door-mats’. The force behind Allen Fisher’s comments in that 1988 review from the last issue of Reality Studios can be felt when we read
calculate disturbing forces
obstruction’s rough palms
surplus population in any parish
chargeable becomes removable
audits the last place wanted
Peter Riley’s ‘Note’ at the end of his volume gives the reader a very precise historical context for the work:
The Kinder Trespass of April 1932 was a protest by
about 400 people against the permanent closure of
large areas of the wild uplands of Derbyshire for the
exclusive use of grouse-shooting parties which took
place on about twelve days per year.
This has an echo for me of that fine E.P. Thompson book about the Black Acts of the Eighteenth Century, Whigs and Hunters. Riley’s account in prose and poetry is of an ascent from Hayfield
A stone path up the ridge end, ghosts fleeing in the wind, calling, most of them scout leaders and members of Class 2B 1952, most of them long dead, half-remembered and gone.
This is a beautifully haunting book which places our very personal sense of the ‘now’ in which we live against a ‘then’ in which historical moments took place. Twenty years have passed between the Kinder Trespass and Riley’s climb ‘to find out what there was, at the end of a climb asking to be walked, at the end of a history under erasure.’ All history is a record of loss and all historians tread the underworld in the hope of bringing a Eurydice back: task doomed to failure by the very glance backwards which is the historian’s concern. Peter Riley’s conclusion is more uplifting, however, and he closes this lovely little volume with three simple words, ‘Persistence, optimism, grace.’ This doesn’t make ghosts disappear but keeps them firmly in their place!
Longbarrow Press, 76 Holme Lane, Sheffield S6 4JW (www.longbarrowpress.com)
Shearsman Books Ltd, 50 Westons Hill Drive, Emersons Green, Bristol BS16 7DF
Ian Brinton, 22nd August 2014